The Boy Next Door is not a very good erotic thriller. Which, if you’ve seen the trailer, shouldn’t surprise you – it is filled with dubious sexaaaay double entendres only a nineteen year old would find clever (“I love your mom’s cookies”), and hey wouldn’t you know it, that’s pretty much the movie.
The film isn’t even especially erotic, which you’d think would be a nice prerequisite if you’re an erotic thriller-maker. You want (click click hisssss) steam heat, but Ryan Guzman is a sculpted (heyo!) chunk of ice turning any rolling boil he finds into a tepid puddle. He steals the film out from under a perfectly adequate Jennifer Lopez with his unintentionally hilarious portrayal of Noah, the 19 year old man-boy who woos and then stalks and then attempts to rape and destroy Jennifer Lopez’s high school teacher without ever realizing that any of this behavior might be seen as even a little bit uncouth.
Guzman is playing that special brand of movie sociopath that understands social mores well enough to act not just humanely but superhumanely, the very model of a major-hunk, for weeks; but also understands social mores so poorly that he genuinely sees himself as the victim in any given circumstance – he can turn any slight into a reason to lash out violently at anyone (almost always a woman) around him, for extremely dubious physiological reasons. Noah is all charming puppy dog precociousness until things turn bad very fast, at which point he becomes bad, bad Leroy Brown, meaner than a junkyard dog. No middle ground.
Only one scene bridges the way-too-brief portion of the film that is meant to beerotic with the insanely dragged out majority of the film that is meant to bethrilling, showing hints of both Noah the swoony object of desire and Noah the sickening desirer-cum-stalker. That scene is charged with the orgasmic moan of Lopez’s Claire Peterson, and it is refreshingly concerned with the female’s needs, which is all too rare for sex scenes. Maybe that’s why she succumbs to the advances of the walking bicep that quotes Greek classics, but it’s much more interesting to see what the human bicep is saying in that scene to disarm Claire. “No judgments,” he coos. “No rules. Just us.”
Mmmmhmmmm… This pat little catchphrase proves to be false on many levels, which we could chalk up to Noah turning out to be a less than trustworthy sorta guy who says what he needs to say to get what he wants. But it also proves to be a lie the filmmakers tell just as much as it’s a lie their antagonist tells.
No judgments? The film can’t help but judge Claire harshly, implicitly stating that her actions would so undermine her in the eyes of any authority figure that she basically has to take this abuse until it stops or until she stops it. No rules? All the rules of the horror genre are in play here, with sex leading to danger, and with danger targeting the most promiscuous woman – the sassy best friend whose dating advice is “take off your wedding ring, give him head” has exactly the fate you would expect her to have. Just them? These two are carrying enough convoluted psychological baggage to fill a psychological cargo hold.
A lot of this comes down to director Rob Cohen – likely best known for directing the first Fast and Furious film (before that series became actually good), though he also produced the The Wiz, which is hilariously synopsized by a bully in this film – probably not being the exact right person to tackle the psychology of his intended protagonist, a cuckolded fortysomething wife looking for… what exactly? Satisfaction? Love? Revenge? The strength to move on? She seems to be leaning towards a reconciliation with her husband from the outset, maybe? It’s alarming how little interiority this film provides Claire, who is in practically every scene but who is always reacting to someone else’s (usually insane) actions… with one exception, a scene where Claire is set up as the willing cougar, the aging woman wearing a teddy with a slit that pretty much reaches her armpit and cartoonish stilettos. She looks questioningly at her visage in the mirror, clearly sexually and emotionally stymied by a cheating spouse, waiting longingly for a sexy white knight to ride up and save her. And she turns right, looks out the window and Noah is removing his boxers. Is that rippling mass of muscles she’s ogling in the house across the way her savior? She is peeping on him. He knows it. He likes it. (He will not handle it well when she turns back on the little adventure they start with this charged interaction.)
This is a knowing inversion of the cray cray stalker lady movies that dominated the late 80s and early 90s, where a frustrated man (you know, Michael Douglas) would step out on his wife with a total babe and, wouldn’t you know it, the babe would turn out to be a possessive psycho. Noah is a startlingly incompetent gender-swapped translation of this femme fatale archetype but there’s also an issue with Claire; at least during these scenes of forbidden lust, the camera spends way too much time ogling Jennifer Lopez in that teddy. Not that Guzman, who is introduced as a bulging muscle and shows off some bare buttocks, isn’t his own special brand of cheesecake (he’s a whole Cheesecake Factory), but the camera’s obsession with Lopez’s lithe figure undermines all the things the script is trying to tell us she’s feeling – that she wasn’t beautiful enough to keep her husband from straying, that she’s losing it. All those Michael Douglas films didn’t go out of their way to play up Douglas’s studliness or the definition of his abs – the point was for us to really feel his mid-life crisis, his own sense of inadequacy. Without Lopez and her treasured place at the center of the male gaze, it’s unlikely The Boy Next Door would have become the financial success it is, so it’s a trade-off. Lost in the trade for box office name recognition are essential pieces of storytelling logic.
How can we come to terms with all these disparate elements and emerge with a unifying theory for this mess of impulses that ended up becoming The Boy Next Door? Well, the film is always pointing us to the cipher we can use to break its code and dive deeper into its true meaning. And by pointing, I mean flailing and shouting at the top of its lungs hoping we’ll notice. The Boy Next Door may not be good, and it may not be erotic, but it wants us to know it is very well-read.
Let’s qualify: “well-read” implies some breadth. Y’know, the sort of far-reaching syllabus you might expect an AP Literature teacher like Claire to put together. Strangely though, like Claire’s semester-long seminar, The Boy Next Door appears to have started at the beginning – Homer and Sophocles – and stopped immediately, sighing while patting it’s belly and saying “Man, those appetizers filled me up, I couldn’t eat another bite.”
Claire first thinks of Noah as something more than that nice boy next door when he he tells her son Kevin that Homer’s his favorite and that Achilles is a badass (what?). He brings her a first edition of the Iliad as a gift (what??) and hacks her computer so he can walk into her semester-long seminar quoting Achilles the badass: “No man born coward or brave can shun his destiny.” (The class laughs as if he has said something funny rather than quoting a line from a book they haven’t read yet in a vaguely threatening way. What can you say? Kids, right?) When he sees that Claire’s husband has stayed the night, he partakes in the most intense Homer-reading session ever undertaken, furtively taking in passages while punching the air and having sexy-time flashbacks. And when he posts pictures of their tryst all over Claire’s classroom, guess what he writes on the board? “Once more, I must bring what is dark to light – Oedipus.”
Oh, has Noah been supplementing his love of the Iliad (which briefly looks into Oedipus) with some close readings of “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles? Because the filmmakers sure have! We come to find out that, when Noah’s father stepped out on his mother who subsequently killed himself, Noah murdered his father by tampering with the breaks on his car. Now Noah is bedding a woman who doubles for his departed mother – hurt by a cheating husband, taking care of a teenage son – and he’s molding that teenage son, Kevin, in his own likeness, turning him on his father and sending him into his own near-murderous rage complete with tampered breaks. The strange protective relationship Noah has with Kevin (he honest-to-goodness saves his life one time while everyone else stands around dumbfounded), just about the only humanizing aspect of Noah, veers so often into direct symbolic correlation (Kevin takes a girl to the dance and Noah ends up getting a blowjob from her that night) that you wonder if, at the end, the aged Mr. Sandborn will croak “What nephew, I never had a nephew?” and Noah will be revealed as some collective Oedipal psychosis of the Peterson family. Instead (unfortunately), Noah is all too real, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s even blinded by Kevin’s EpiPen. Oedipus as 21st century beefcake!
Can you see how a supposedly female-driven movie would be robbed of its female driver if the whole thing was an excuse to do a modernized, incest-less spin on fiction’s proto-damaged male protagonist? Lopez is the star, and Claire is in the cross-hairs, but the movie is driven by notions derived from famous (antiquated) texts and famous (antiquated) psychological principles that deal with the male psyche. Driven right off a cliff into crazytown. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the famous Buffy storyline where Angel becomes Angelus after Buffy and the cursed vampire consummate their love. The monster within unleashes hell in the halls of Sunnydale High, even brutally murdering a school employee. Except, on a plot level, the sudden transformation of David Boreanaz from protector to menace had a logical in-story magical explanation, and the allegorical implications (Buffy wrestling with giving up her virginity and the notion that once a boy gets it, he has what he came for) were some of the most nuanced explorations of a teenaged girl’s psyche there have ever been.
Angel was an ageless vampire caught in a subtextual horror parable and he still seemed more human than Noah Sandborn, who appears to have gotten in town and immediately identified his target, set up a stalker basement and a hidden camera in his house, and acted the role of the ideal suitor and surrogate son (did he actually love the same Classics as Claire, which would be an alarming coincidence, or did he find out she did and put together a reading list to suit her desires?), and, once he had struck this delicate balance, started slapping assistant principals, throwing around the c-word, and bashing in heads in public because he couldn’t get his way. The perfect criminal turns into a monologuing expression of the entitled male id. Some of this comes down to Guzman’s performance, which is bad (and suffers in comparison to film’s own supreme Oedipal figure, Norman Bates, who was portrayed by Anthony Perkins in one of the greatest feats of acting we’re ever likely to see); but a lot of it is right there in the script, leaving Guzman little room to do anything but smize and glower. This is the only boy in the world who read insanely violent and kooky Greek myths and thought they were self-help guides. He is a boogeyman sent from the Underworld to return the dysfunctional Peterson to normalcy; Claire will hapilly never look at another man but her husband, who won’t be insulting her cooking anytime soon. And their son will no longer want to bed his mother and kill his father. An EMT even tells them that everything will be okay now, all thanks to Noah, who is a grand misfire in the annals of screen villainy.
Faced with his all-over-the-map behavior, even minus the Oedipal undertones (overtones?), any number of people could have contacted the authorities: the boy whose head was pummeled, the assistant principal who was slapped and verbally dressed down, the woman who was trapped in a school bathroom and almost raped. Instead, Claire and her best friend – both brought low by Noah, who essentially has them both trapped in his web because he informs them they have both had sex with men, which, c’mon – conspire to break into Noah’s house to delete his secret blackmail files (as if he will have no recourse once he finds out what they’ve done) because, as Claire is told when she tries to explain that she is being violently harassed by a man who, yes she slept with, but who is now attempting to rape and blackmail her, “it’s not the way the rest of the world’s gonna see it.” Well, crap…
Claire does what any number of 45 year old men in a rut are encouraged to do by Hollywood movies – bed a younger woman – and she is automatically a harlot who must deal with what is coming to her. Maybe this is the way things are perceived in the real world, and the film wants to nod to that reality so it can move on to more scenes of Noah brutalizing woman. But do you see how a movie saying that’s the way things are – not so much resignedly as much as instructionally – without ever even broaching the seal and exploring Claire’s viable avenues before resorting to desperate self-defense might calcify all those notions? The Boy Next Door is a worth a laugh or two for how leaden its diologue is, especially whenever the Classics come up. It’s also worth every consternated glance it earns, which, depending on your tolerance for Sophocles interpretations, is equal to about how much you could fetch for an actual first edition of the Iliad.